Article — From the August 2008 issue

The Wrecking Crew

How a gang of right-wing con men destroyed Washington and made a killing

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Prodigious though they may seem, these acts of retail profiteering were minuscule compared with the colossal entrepreneurial gambit that the Iran-Contra investigation revealed. The insiders called it “the Enterprise”: private money, raised through the sale of government favors and property, would go to fund private armies of “freedom fighters” operating overseas. The ultimate aim of the Enterprise, as envisioned by CIA Director Casey, was privatization on the grandest scale imaginable: the construction of a foreign-policy instrument that was free from the meddling of Congress, financed by sales of weapons and another precious commodity that government had in abundance but had hitherto been reluctant to market—access.

The Enterprise eventually fell apart under congressional scrutiny, but fifteen years later this very bad idea was back again in even more grandiose form: a vast selling-off of government favors to those willing to fund the conservative movement, a wholesale transfer of government responsibilities to private-sector contractors, and even private armies, unaccountable to Congress or to anyone else.

Today industry conservatism includes specialists in dozens of fields. There are professionals and amateurs; those who do it because they’re paid to do it and those who do it because their eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Entrepreneur. It includes establishment firms and feisty start-ups, megacontractors taking billions to do work that the government used to do itself for far less, young men with a nice smile and a single client— who just wants to do a little clear-cutting out West somewhere. In conservative circles you encounter entrepreneurs both formally and casually, at carefully programmed events laying out the opportunities for profit opened up by Hurricane Katrina, or in conversation at a banquet celebrating some right-wing anniversary or other. At one such event in 2004, waiting for the presentation of a “Charlton Heston commemorative firearm,” I made the backslapping acquaintance of a freelance motivational speaker who, upon discovering that one of my tablemates was an officer of the Transportation Security Administration, immediately sought his confirmation that “we’re gonna privatize that, right?”

For some in winger Washington this is an idealistic business, but what gives it power and longevity is that it is a profitable business. I mean this not as polemic but as a statement of fact. Washington swarms with conservative ideologues not because conservatives particularly like the place but because there is an entire industry here that supports these people—an industry subsidized by the nation’s largest corporations and its richest families, and the government too. We are all familiar with the flagship organizations—Cato, Heritage, AEI—but the industry extends far beyond these, encompassing numerous magazines and literally hundreds of lobbying firms. There is even a daily newspaper—the Washington Times—published strictly for the movement’s benefit, a propaganda sheet whose distortions are so obvious and so alien that it puts one in mind of those official party organs one encounters when traveling in authoritarian countries.

There are political strategists, pollsters, campaign managers, trainers of youth, image consultants, makers of TV commercials, revolutionaries-for-hire, and, of course, direct-mail specialists who still launch their million-letter raids on the mailboxes of the heartland. Remember the guy who wrote all those sputtering diatribes for your college newspaper? Chances are he’s in D.C. now, thinking big thoughts from an endowed chair, or churning out more of the brilliant usual for one of the movement’s many blogs. The campus wingnut whose fulminations on the Red Menace so amused my friends and me at the University of Virginia, for example, resurfaced here as a columnist for the Washington Times before transitioning inevitably into consultancy. A friend of mine who went to Georgetown recently recalled for me the capers of his campus wingnut, whom he had completely forgotten until the guy made headlines as the lead culprit in a minor 2004 scandal called “Memogate.” Later he worked for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, teaching democratic civics to Iraqi politicians.

There is so much money in conservatism these days that Karl Rove rightly boasts, “We can now go to students at Harvard and say, ‘There is now a secure retirement plan for Republican operatives.’” The young people who, like Jack Abramoff before them, have answered conservatism’s call over the past three decades were obeying their conscience, perhaps, but they were also making a canny career move.

Canny career moves are just about all we can expect from conservative government these days: tax breaks for wealthy benefactors, wars started and maintained for the benefit of American industry, fat contracts granted to the clients of the right consultant. Like Bush and Reagan before him, John McCain is a self-proclaimed outsider, but should he win in November he will merely bring us more of the same: an executive branch fed by, if not actually made up of, lobbyists and other angry, righteous profiteers. Washington itself will remain what it has been—not a Babylon that corrupts our pure-hearted right-wingers but the very seat of their Industry Conservatism, constantly seething and effervescing, with tens of thousands of individuals coming and going, each avidly piling up his own tidy pile but between them engaged in an awesome common project.

Take a step back, reader, and see what they have wrought.

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is the author of four books, including What’s the Matter with Kansas? and the forthcoming The Wrecking Crew (Metropolitan Books), from which this essay is adapted.

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